The First Digital Camera

I don’t think you’ll find many people left in our western world who prefer an old-fashioned regular camera over a digital one. While I can still appreciate the charm of fiddling with actual film and the thrill of finding out what your photos looked like all developed, digital photography is easier in just about every possible way. Thanks to The New York Times, I found a story from 2007 on the Kodak blog, detailing the ceation of the very first digital camera. In 1975. An old story, but fascinating nonetheless.

Yes, 1975. Like so many technologies out there that seemingly only recently conquered the market, digital photography’s history is actually a lot longer than you might think. Kind of like multitouch, really – while Apple may claim to have invented it, the technology is much, much older than just the iPhone (we’re talking early ’80s).

Anywho, the same applies to digital photography. Filmless photography became kind of a hot thing back in the late ’60s and ’70s, but it wasn’t until Bell Labs invented the charged-coupled device (CCD) in 1969 that we can really start talking of what we now know as digital photography. A company from Maine called Fairchild Semiconductor built the first commercial CCD in 1973, and this CCD would form the key ingredient in the first digital camera.

The camera was built at Kodak by Steve Sasson, now credited as the inventor of the digital camera. The device in question was supposed to be portable, but with 16 nickle-cadmium batteries, a tape recorder for data storage, and half a dozen circuit boards, it was anything but.

It had a lens that we took from a used parts bin from the Super 8 movie camera production line downstairs from our little lab on the second floor in Bldg 4. On the side of our portable contraption, we shoehorned in a portable digital cassette instrumentation recorder. Add to that 16 nickel cadmium batteries, a highly temperamental new type of CCD imaging area array, an a/d converter implementation stolen from a digital voltmeter application, several dozen digital and analog circuits all wired together on approximately half a dozen circuit boards, and you have our interpretation of what a portable all electronic still camera might look like.

It took nearly a year to build the device, but it was finally ready in December 1975. It sported a 0.01 megapixel resolution, and it took 23 seconds to commit the photograph to the tape. Obviously, the camera is only of so much use if you have a way to actually display the photos it takes. This was also taken care of by Sasson’s team: they built a custom playback device that could take the 100-line image, interpolate it to 400 lines, and display it on an NTSC television.

The two devices were demonstrated all throughout Kodak in 1976, leading to many interesting questions from the audience. “Why would anyone ever want to view his or her pictures on a TV? How would you store these images? What does an electronic photo album look like? When would this type of approach be available to the consumer?”

While Sasson and his team were “being crazy”, they realised full well that with time and technological improvements, digital photography could have a major impact on technology. The technical report describing the camera read: “The camera described in this report represents a first attempt demonstrating a photographic system which may, with improvements in technology, substantially impact the way pictures will be taken in the future.”

I love these stories.


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